In 416 B.C. — while the Buddha was alive and teaching the Dharma according to some sources — the Athenian navy launched an expedition against the island of Melos in the sixteenth year of the Peloponnesian War. Before commencing their attack, the Athenians met with the Melians to try to arrange the terms of their surrender. The Melians, convinced of the justness of their cause, refused. The Athenians then attacked with overwhelming force, slaying all their men of military age, and enslaving their women and children.
Thucydides, the great Athenian historian, reports (or rather imagines) a dialogue between the Athenians and Melians in which the Athenians argued, essentially, that might — along with the rational calculation of self-interest — made right. The Athenians rejected the argument that the gods would support Melos because of the justness of it’s cause:
”When you speak of the favor of the gods, we may as fairly hope for that as yourselves…. Of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a necessary law of their nature they rule wherever they can. And it is not as if we were the first to make this law, or to act upon it when made: we found it existing before us, and shall leave it to exist for ever after us; all we do is to make use of it, knowing that you and everybody else, having the same power as we have, would do the same as we do.”
This has always been the essence of realpolitik. Stalin made virtually the same argument, only pithier, when he responded to French Foreign Minister Pierre Laval’s suggestion that he should encourage Catholicism to propitiate the Pope by saying, ”The Pope? How many divisions does he have?”
The Athenian claim that it’s the strong’s destiny to rule over the weak, that realpolitik, red in tooth and claw, is the law of nature, is reflected in some histories and biographies I’ve been reading these last few months. In After Tamerlane, historian John Darwin recounts the clashes from 1400 A.D. to the present between the Chinese, Indian, Persian, Ottoman, Mongol, and European empires and peoples. In Blood and Thunder, biographer Hampton Sides recounts Kit Carson’s role in fulfilling the United States’s ”manifest destiny” as it expanded across the North American continent from sea to shining sea, wresting the western territories from Mexico’s grasp, and conquering the Navajo, Comanche, and Apache peoples. In The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt and Theodore Rex, biographer Edmund Morris explores the expansion of American might and power into the Spanish colonies of Cuba and the Philippines, and into Central America as Roosevelt seeks to build the Panama Canal. These books point to the universality of aspirations to empire, and the inevitability of conflict between nations and the strong prevailing over the weak. History, as the saying goes, is written by the victors.
The claim that might makes right, first articulated by the Greek Sophists, was rejected by Plato in The Republic, in which he made the metaphysical argument that ”justice” existed as an ideal form apart from the minds of men or the customs of nations. The Buddha also rejected the claim that might made right with his own metaphysics of karma, while the Abrahamic religions rejected the claim by appealing to divine law. All argued for a ”higher” morality which constrained the actions of the mighty. Buddhism and the Abrahamic religions both posit behavioral costs for immoral behavior, ones they project into either an afterlife or some future rebirth — but in our daily lives we see malefactors prosper and saints suffer, while convincing proof of reward or punishment in an afterlife is never quite forthcoming.
Fortunately, Buddhism also makes more subtle arguments:
First, that morality leads to improved character and well-being, and ultimately to enlightenment. Moral behavior makes us feel better — and more importantly — makes us be better in ways that both we and others value and recognize. As much as our popular culture celebrates an unending stream of media mediocrities, it also valorizes icons who stand above and beyond the common stream – the bodhisattvas of every faith — Gandhi, Mandela, Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Jr., Albert Schweitzer, Paul Farmer, the Dalai Lama. We recognize that there is such a thing as a life well-lived that is meaningfully superior to the pursuit of power and pleasure.
Second, while the immoral exercise of power may result in short term gains, it ultimately creates the conditions for extended conflict and unintended consequences, a naturalized interpretation of karma. Thus the 1953 CIA overthrow of the Iranian government prepared the stage for the1979 Iranian Revolution, and it’s support of an international brigade of Islamist volunteers against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan was the precondition for the emergence of Al-Queda. One reaps what one sows.
Third, it seems self-evident that if all parties abided by (almost) universally acknowledged conceptions of humanity, fairness and justice, the world would be a better place for everyone. The problem with this argument is that everyone must simultaneously agree to follow the rules together, or else it doesn’t work. This can only occur when conditions arise that sufficiently convince the strong it’s in their own best long-term interest to constrain themselves.
There have been past historical eras in which the great powers have been more or less evenly balanced, when no one power has had the ability to dictate its wishes to another without incurring unacceptable costs. During those eras, powers tested and probed each other, competing for advantage and dominance in limited spheres, but refraining from actions which would have shattered the overall peace. The European powers did this in the near-century between the Congress of Vienna and the First World War.
Our current age is one in which the powers of the United States, Europe, China, and Russia are compelled to recognize domains of interdependence as well as arenas of competition and limited conflict. The existence of weapons of mass destruction has made a convincing case for great power compromise and, to a limited extent, cooperation. Ours is an historical era in which progress towards establishing institutional frameworks for resolving conflict is possible; institutions that operate within an emerging conception of International Law; institutions and rules that are binding on the strong as well as the weak, and dependent on collective action. These incipient rules and institutions are still weak and emerging, and their continued development depends on a growing recognition that we are not the centers of the universe, and that our actions must be grounded in interdependence, fairness, and a larger conception of humanity. In other words, ideas that are central to the Dharma.
In their dialogue with the Athenians, the Melians argued that doing what is just was also in the Athenian’s long-term interest:
”We speak as we are obliged — since you enjoin us to [speak not of] right alone and talk only [in terms of] of interest — that you should not destroy what is our common protection — the privilege of being allowed in danger to invoke what is fair and right… And you are as much interested in this as any…
Melos was warning Athens that the day might come when the shoe was on the other foot, and they might have to plead their own case against a stronger foe.
What goes around comes around.
The Athenians shrugged this off:
”The end of our empire, if end it should, does not frighten us…. This… is a risk that we are content to take…”
They should have been paying more attention. The Athenian Empire came to an end a mere thirteen years later when they suffered a final defeat at the hands of the Spartans. As it turned out, the Spartans dealt far more leniently with the Athenians than the Athenians had with the poor Melians. In their particular case, what went around only partially came around — luckily for us, or we would never have been able to read Plato.
The dialectic between understanding human conflict through the lens of power alone — as a natural force, like hurricanes and earthquakes, that needs be accepted for what it is — and understanding it in moral terms, is an unending one. It’s played out today in realist-versus-idealist prescriptions for American foreign policy. It’s also played out in philosophical debates over the status of morality within the natural science framework– a world-view anchored in materialism and flirting, more than occasionally, with reductionism.
Some may look at Buddhist prescriptions for ethical conduct the way Stalin viewed the Pope:
The Buddha? How many divisions does he have?
Others may see the Dharma as offering a rational prescription for survival in an era of growing interdependence and unparalleled destructive power. My suspicion is that, excepting the small percentage of the population that constitute true psychopaths, everyone believes in his or her heart of hearts that morality trumps might, that the strong may have their way and even enjoy, at least for a while, the fruits of their victory — but that even if the bar of justice is toothless, they are still ultimately held accountable in the consciences of men and women.
What strength does the small, defenseless voice of conscience have in the face of overwhelming power? Not much. The Melians would surely have done better to surrender to the Athenians. Relying on being in the right for one’s physical safety is never a good idea.
But over time we’ve seen the gradual emancipation of slaves, the granting of the franchise to women, the end of European colonialism, the fall of fascist and communist totalitarianism, the abolition of public hangings, the end of apartheid. It’s almost as if, as Tolstoy wrote in his Christian parable, ”God sees the truth but acts slowly.”
Stalin is dead.
There’s a new pope in Rome.
Social evolution occurs, but only over time, with the slow persistent effort of people of conscience across generations, like water slowly eroding rock.
Athens has come and gone, but the Dharma remains, timeless, calling us to our higher selves (or non-selves) and to the service of all beings